When I was growing up, my church had a section where people could come to pray alone with God or have others pray with them. It was available after pretty much every gathering and it was called the “altar”.
For the first number of years as a Jesus follower my understanding of grace was skewed. I had a real desire to be able to live a “holy” life and to please God, but my understanding of how to do that had less to do with building relationship with him and more to do with using my strength to complete all the “thou shall”s and avoid all the “thou shall not”s.
I don’t believe that this was because of the example of the Jesus followers around me so much as a stage I was walking through when I was reading through the old testament but not through the lens of Christ. At any rate, one of the ways that this journey played out was that most Sundays, between ages seven and twelve, I was at the “altar” for at least fifteen minutes after service. I would weep, confess my failings and beg God to make me more like him. It was cathartic, and I did see growth in areas – his grace was being made more and more manifest in my life.
Well, I still wasn’t getting that His love was so much more central to our relationship than my behaviours were. Then one Sunday, as a twelve year old, he gave me a glimpse of his love that still blows me away when I think of it. I’m not saying that I instantly lost all legalism and prioritized loving God and others over following rules (those who grew up with me would be able to attest that I didn’t), but it was a real turning point in my life that changed the way I saw the world. Here is what happened.
It started kind of like normal. After the sermon, I knelt down by the stairs at the side of the altar that led to the piano on the stage. It was a good height for me as a child to support my elbows while kneeling and was kind of “my spot”. One of the pastors laid his hand on my shoulder and prayed that God would “honour my tender heart and bless me with a deeper understanding of Him and His love”. Then he moved on to pray with the others that were waiting. I wept for a while and laid my desire to serve him more successfully at his feet again. Then this time I felt something different, I felt a very clear command that I was to “wait”.
So I waited expectantly wondering what would happen. I glanced at the front pew where my parents and sister had moved to wait for me and then closed my eyes again. After a while I saw an image.
In the image I see myself crawling up an altar of rough hewn stones. When I get to the top of the altar I find a knife and I know exactly what I’m supposed to do with it. I take the knife and slice across my gut, holding out the filthy, rotting entrails that are exposed as an offering … only they weren’t accepted as an acceptable offering. What was I supposed to do?
The picture ended and I felt to “wait” again. I knew that Dad was excited to get home to see a big race on television, but he is giving no indication, just patiently giving me as much time as I need at the altar. Everyone other than our family has gone and almost all the lights are out, Mom must have agreed to lock up so that the pastors could leave.
I decide to wait again. After a while I see another picture.
It starts exactly the same way. Once again I crawl up this altar, and take the knife – this time I’m sure that the offering will be accepted. This time I obeyed correctly and waited the correct amount. Certainly that earned the ability to be an acceptable sacrifice … didn’t it? With a bit of trepidation I move to cut myself again. Just as I’m about to pierce flesh my hand is held in place by an invisible force and while I’m straining against it I hear.
“Stop! Don’t do that!”
I stop trying to complete the stroke.
“Don’t cut that. Don’t cut him. He’s my son. I love him. Don’t cut him. Love him.”
The knife drops from my hands and the voice continues.
“You’re my son. I love you.”
The image faded but the words continued while I burst into a new round of weeping. Only this time they weren’t tears of grief and frustration, they were tears of relief. A small boy overwhelmed by the acceptance and love of his God.
Like I said above, this was only one step in my journey of overcoming self condemnation. However, it underlined how embracing my inability to do what Jesus did for me didn’t have to be frustrating but could be freeing, and it did it in a way a sermon never could have. I would love to have you comment below about a memory you have of how God helped you to be able to better understand the depths of His love and grace.